The Trad Youth Exchange: A Promise fulfilled in Boston and Tulla, Co. Clare

To hear the participants tell it, Part 2 of the Trad Youth Exchange was every bit as enjoyable, and successful, as Part 1.
The exchange is an effort to build fellowship and understanding between Irish and American children through traditional Irish music; a group of youngsters – mostly pre- and early teens – from County Clare were matched up with an equal number of their peers, most from Greater Boston and also the New York City and Philadelphia areas. Last fall, the Clare contingent came to Boston for a week of musical and social activities that culminated in a performance at The Burren in Somerville.

In February, it was the young American musicians’ turn to travel. They spent a week in and around the town of Tulla in Clare to complete the second leg of the exchange, taking in the sights (including the real Burren), enjoying a “Trad Disco Night” of set dancing, and giving a few performances. But most importantly, the TYE members, about 30 in all, again had ample opportunity to hang out and simply play music – which, after all, is kind of the point.

“It was a whirlwind,” says 13-year-old Maeve O’Brien of Brighton. “We did a lot of things, had a lot of fun, and the best part of all was seeing the kids again and being able to play tunes with them.”

Medford sisters Elizabeth (13) and Mary (11) Kozachek – both fiddlers like Maeve – liked the exposure to different playing styles and techniques afforded them by the trip. “But,” adds Mary, “I really can’t point to just one thing. I loved all of it.”

The exchange’s social and educational dimensions are equally important, says Melrose resident Lisa Coyne, who co-founded the TYE with Clare musician Mary MacNamara. She and a core group of other adults – including Sean Clohessy, Kathleen Conneely, Patrick Hutchinson, Chris Stevens, and Jimmy Noonan – have encouraged young people to view their music of choice not as simply another task in their daily or weekly calendar, but also as a vehicle for building friendships and community. In a 21st-century world of social media and related technology, that community can cover a lot of ground – clear across the ocean, in fact.

“Even before the Tulla kids came over last fall, they were in touch with the Boston kids, through e-mail, Facebook, Skype and so on,” says Coyne, who is executive director of the Boston Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Music School, where many of the TYE musicians are enrolled. “After that visit, and leading up to the one in February, the contact only increased.”

The big lesson gleaned by the young Bostonians through the exchange is the prominent role music plays in the lives of their Clare counterparts, and the benefits they reap as a result.

“Listening to them play together, you just hear how tight they are,” observes Cormac Gaj, 14, a flute and whistle player, and budding uilleann piper, from Cambridgeport. “One of the things we found on the visit is that there is so much music there, even more so than in Boston. Kids are required to learn instruments in their schools, and they go out to play sessions and ceilis almost every week. So we really got an insight into how music can be a part of your life.”

Adds Maeve, “The kids in Tulla have been playing together for so long, they just sound amazing – not only as a group but in solos, duos, and trios.”

Deb Murphy of Burlington, who accompanied her 13-year-old son Liam on the TYE trip, agrees. “Music is an everyday thing for the kids there. They just bring out the instruments and start playing. We were also impressed with how involved the kids’ families are. Obviously, Tulla is a lot smaller than Boston, but it’s bursting with the music.”

In fact, adds Murphy, the Tulla-to-Boston leg of the exchange last fall supplied the Boston musicians with no small amount of motivation to bring their playing up a notch in time for the Boston-to-Tulla trip. “After hearing the kids from Clare, Liam and the others knew they had to practice more. They worked hard from November to February.”

The TYE also affirmed how travel can be a means to experience the new and unfamiliar, and unleash hitherto hidden qualities, especially among youths. During their Boston visit, one Tulla parent had remarked on the ease and confidence her child exhibited in journeying around a big urban landscape like Boston. By the same token, in Clare the Boston musicians put their best feet forward in an activity not many of them had tried before: set and ceili dancing.

“When he saw this on the itinerary, Liam said, ‘Dance workshop? No way, I’m not dancing,’” laughs Murphy. “But when it came time, there he was out on the floor. This is not something he’d normally do at home. I think being around all the other kids just helped open things up a lot.”

With this first installment of the TYE complete, the question of “What happens now?” inevitably arises. The kids, parents, and other TYE adults all put in a great amount of work to raise funds and hammer out logistics for both legs of the exchange, and were helped immeasurably by support from both American and Irish music communities, note the exchange organizers.
“Basically, it took four years to put this all together, with 18 months of fundraising,” says Coyne. “These families did so much, and people like Sean Clohessy, Kathleen Conneely, Pat Hutchinson, [Burren co-owners] Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello, were simply invaluable.”

Instead of trying to harness that degree of effort on an annual basis, TYE organizers are looking at holding another exchange in two or three years, and with some new faces among the participants.

“There are younger musicians now who, in another few years, will be old enough to really benefit from the experience,” says Coyne. “But it’s certainly possible that some of the kids who took part this time may return: They can serve as mentors and role models, which is a very important dynamic – both for them and for the younger kids.”

No matter what shape it may take in the future, Coyne and others involved feel the exchange has definitely fulfilled its promise. “These guys have really bonded, within their own group as well as the one overseas, which is definitely a positive development,” she explains. “Certainly, the relationships that have been formed are something the kids can enjoy outside of TYE: We heard so many ‘See you at the [All-Ireland] Fleadh!’ remarks at the end of the visit. At the very least, if a kid from our group goes over to Ireland, or one of the kids from Clare comes over here, he or she knows there’s a friend waiting.”

For more on the Trad Youth Exchange, see